In response to:

Forging an Early Black Politics from the July 1, 2021 issue

To the Editors:

I write to thank Sean Wilentz for his generous, learned review of my The First Reconstruction and Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done [NYR, July 1]. I write not to challenge his assessment, but to pose a question.

Wilentz’s review alludes to the current dystopian moment shaped by Donald Trump’s white nationalism taking over the once-great Republican Party. In that context, he describes the rise of a “historical interpretation, lavishly publicized and increasingly in vogue” focused on “the white supremacy upon which the nation was supposedly founded.” I am perplexed. Does he believe this nation was not founded on white supremacy? In his 1972 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, the Yale historian Edmund Morgan asserted that the founding’s central paradox was its inextricable linkage between “American slavery” and “American freedom”; the subsequent book with that title was canonical for two generations of graduate students, including, presumably, Wilentz and myself.*

Unless we repudiate Morgan’s thesis, the United States surely was established on the principle of whites’ supremacy over nonwhites, both those of African descent legally available for enslavement and indigenous peoples subject to ethnic cleansing and extermination. Certainly that is my book’s perspective. Where Wilentz and I presumably agree is the necessity of avoiding totalizing or reifying white supremacy into an immovable monolith, in which case history ends, as there can be no change over time. That is not my view, nor was it the perspective of the antebellum black political class whose story I seek to tell.

One additional point. Wilentz cites another canonical work, Leon Litwack’s 1961 North of Slavery, which powerfully indicted the racism endemic to the “free” states. He is right that Masur and I are complicating that thesis. There is another historian who should be cited here, however: Benjamin Quarles, one of the great black scholars of the twentieth century. His Black Abolitionists (1969) prefigured my focus on black electoral involvement, especially his emphasis on the political culture of free black men in the pre-war decades. Ever since Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 (and The Journal of Negro History the following year), African-American scholars have challenged the overwhelming condescension of the white historical establishment by asserting the efficacy of black resistance to enslavement, and their repudiation of racialism. That is the ground on which I tread, and the scholarship to which I hope to add.

In his conclusion, Wilentz describes the polarity between “mythic narratives of inevitable progress” and today’s “pessimistic cynicism about the nation’s racial past.” I hope he will agree that those should not be the only options. In this context, I am brought back to Antonio Gramsci’s great aphorism: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In this fraught time, with our rickety, post-1960s political democracy under siege, we need to cast a cold eye on history, and on our prospects.

Van Gosse
Professor of History and Chair of Africana Studies
Franklin and Marshall College
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Sean Wilentz replies:

Van Gosse’s gracious letter raises serious questions about race and the nation’s founding. He asserts that the United States was founded on the subjugation of blacks and American Indians, and claims the authority of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.

Gosse suggests that I would have historians “repudiate” that book’s thesis, but he ignores its subtitle: “The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.” Morgan’s trailblazing account of Virginia as a master-race colony illuminates the development of the American South. It is not, however, the entire story.

Virginia was not Massachusetts, which abolished slavery in 1783 and, as Gosse’s own book shows, enfranchised black men. It was not Pennsylvania, which in 1780 enacted an unprecedented gradual emancipation law that condemned racial inequality. Nor can Virginia account for antislavery whites like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin or black patriots like Phillis Wheatley and Prince Hall.

Morgan occasionally exaggerated his argument to cover all America, noting the importance of Virginia slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson, while still concluding that, “whatever his shortcomings,” Jefferson “was the greatest champion of liberty this country has ever had.” Other historians purged that conclusion while turning Morgan’s erroneous generalization into a sweeping orthodoxy, now embraced by Gosse. They all disregard Morgan’s complexity as well as his more exact subtitle.

Gosse’s letter asserts that racial slavery, enabled by Indian removal, made white supremacy a core national principle. This mocks the historical record. Antislavery and anti-racist politics appeared only in the 1760s—and only in the American colonies. Those politics, hailed by later abolitionists as of world-historical importance, engaged blacks and whites, enslaved and free. Inspired by the Revolution’s egalitarianism, antislavery advocates overcame powerful opposition and enacted the first emancipations of their kind in history, in seven of the thirteen original states.

The proslavery Lower South fiercely resisted this antislavery vanguard, producing the Constitution’s compromises over slavery. Yet antislavery northerners like Gouverneur Morris prevented enshrining racial slavery as a formally legitimate national institution, let alone as a founding principle. The Constitution also struck the first serious blow ever against the Atlantic slave trade, authorizing abolition of US involvement in 1808. The separate Ordinance of 1787 authorized halting the extension of slavery into the territories, the issue that precipitated the Civil War.

The United States, in short, was founded not on slavery and white supremacy but amid an unprecedented struggle over slavery and white supremacy, which the Constitution left open. The cotton kingdom’s rise after 1790 brought a resurgence of proslavery and racist politics, but the biracial struggle against those politics continued through the Civil War and Reconstruction, as Gosse’s and Masur’s books affirm. That struggle, as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass proclaimed, grew from the partial antislavery victories at the founding.

Despite Gosse’s uncharacteristically dogmatic rhetoric, there is nothing condescending or “white” in this view. The great black historian Benjamin Quarles, whom Gosse cites, wrote that understanding early American slavery required appreciating “a concomitant development and influence—the crusade against it.” Gosse’s outstanding book builds on Quarles’s insight. Unfortunately, his letter retreats into the threadbare orthodoxy.